Fans and scholars might be surprised to learn that the earring in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1664–67) may have been an imitation gem. The work is one of the Dutch artist’s most iconic paintings and inspired a 1995 historical novel that was adapted into a 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. This discovery is one of many explored by the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeer retrospective, which opened on February 10.
Vermeer brings together new research and 28 paintings, many of which institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, have loaned. The Mauritshuis museum in the Hague lent the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to the show. Visitors can also explore the show through an online exhibition launched on January 16, allowing Vermeer lovers to view the works in ultra-high resolution photographs capturing even the tiniest of cracks and fissures in the aged canvases.
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The stunning conclusion about the famed earring comes in the show’s co-curator Pieter Roelofs’s essay about Vermeer’s turn towards a Dutch Golden Age type of study called the “tronie” in the mid-1660s. Unlike a portrait displaying a living person, this genre depicts a fictitious scene, fabricating elements like the backdrop, clothes, or accessories, even if a painter uses a model. Roelofs writes that the iconic Dutch painter was interested in using the genre to explore how light and shadows interact with a face.
Roelof notes that all four of Vermeer’s tronies, “Girl with a Flute,” “Girl with a Red Hat,” “Girl with a Veil,” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” feature these so-called “pearls.” About half of the Dutch painter’s works include pearl earrings or necklaces that were in fashion in the latter portion of the 17th century. However, this jewelry had to be shipped to the Netherlands from South Asia and was exorbitantly priced as a result. The tronie that highlights the earring has the largest gem of the four studies. Roelofs explains that based on the size and weight of most pearls imported at the time, Vermeer wouldn’t have been able to afford the earrings he painted and likely referenced imitation glass pearls instead.
Discoveries such as the fake earring and the artist’s interest in the camera obscura, which he acquired through encounters with Jesuit priests, excite art historians as much about Vermeer’s life as a painter has remained a mystery. Vermeer only created about 37 known works. Some wonder if an apprentice created works like “Girl with a Flute” and have even speculated his daughter Maria was the pupil. She is also thought to have been the model for “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”